“Well, there’s only one song left to sing,” says Graham Nash as CSN reconvene on the Albert Hall stage for their encore, hours after opening with “Carry On”. The crowd, already long on its feet in acclaim, cheers even louder: it has to be “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, the song with which they opened their debut album, and the mature phases of their respective careers, 44 years ago. It’s been, as they say, a long time gone.
Tonight offered a magical rolling-back of those years. The trio are so much better than the last time I saw them, eight years ago: the harmonies seem tighter – albeit at times a little lower – and Stephen Stills’s guitar-playing is breathtakingly good, whether skimming slippery lines through his own drug-smuggler tale “Treetop Fliers”, or wringing fiery, flashing sparks on David Crosby’s anthemic “Almost Cut My Hair”.
And Nash holds centre stage with relaxed irreverence, annotating the songs with explanatory details – how he wrote “Our House” for Joni Mitchell after they’d been out on a drizzly LA day; how the new song “Burning For the Buddha” was written for 128 Buddhist monks who, he claimed, had burned themselves to death in the past year protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet; and how “Cathedral” originated on an acid-fuelled trip to Winchester Cathedral, where, spookily, he found himself standing on the gravestone of a soldier who died in 1799 on Nash’s own birthday.
That song, aptly prefaced by an introduction on the hall’s mighty pipe-organ, is just one of a string of highlights in tonight’s show, which features most of their classic first two albums, the songs stretched just enough not to shatter the carefully wrought harmonic structures. Songs such as “Carry On” and “49 Bye-Byes” are rockier than before, while the more delicate likes of “Helplessly Hoping” and “Guinnevere” are rendered pristine, sparkling like diamonds. And Nash’s knack for knockout pop tunes turns “Teach Your Children”, “Our House” and “Marrakesh Express” into joyous crowd singalongs. Even the newer songs have the engaging warmth of old favourites, rather than excuses for trips to the bar.
Black-clad, in line atop the stage’s Persian rugs, they make for an unusual supergroup: at one side, Stills wrestles knuckle-knotting runs from his guitars, while at the other, Crosby either strums along or stands casually, hands in pockets like some beatnik Buddha; in between, the barefoot Nash is like a crouching tiger at the microphone, squeezing out those high-register harmonies with all his being, and taking huge pleasure in the results. At one point, eagerly anticipating the effect of the hall’s resonant acoustics on a song, he exults “We’re bigger than God up here!”, quickly adding with a grin: “Not the real God, but Elvis.”
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